Encircle the dragon: India, US, Japan in dance of diplomacy
The first trilateral meeting established that, occasionally, three's company. And although China was never mentioned, it was the 800-pound panda in the room...
Washington: There is always strength in numbers. And so it is with India, the United States and Japan who decided to come together to take stock of common concerns in Asia ranging from maritime security to piracy to terrorism. They met as a troika for the first time here on Monday to begin a process of creating a mesh of interlinked interests and infuse a better balance in Asia. The balance of power is getting a bit wobbly, as it were.
And no, China was not even mentioned once during the deliberations spread over five hours. On the face of it, the trilateral dialogue was a generalised assembly of like-minded countries talking generally about general stuff. Kurt Campbell, US assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the very idea that the India-US-Japan trilateral might be aimed at containing China was "preposterous". A tad too emphatic perhaps but, yes, the US and every country in Asia wants and good, strong relations with China. But just not on Beijing's terms.
Underneath the diplomatic veneer, concern about China can't be denied. Neither articulated nor intentional, China is nonetheless the reason for this slow "flash mob" of countries coming together over time. Japan, the US and Australia already have a trilateral going since 2006. There is talk of the US, Australia and India creating another triangle.
This is good thinking. China has made angry noises at all this bonding but it only has to listen to itself to find the reasons for the neighbours’ insecurities and their desire for continued US presence in the Asia-Pacific region. And it is not as if China is being excluded or denied membership. Washington and Tokyo wanted a trilateral dialogue with China to establish an open system of communication, but Beijing rejected the idea outright. A trilateral of India, China and the US awaits a response from Beijing. It is unlikely to be positive.
While Beijing rejects, others are accepting new linkages. For India to be part of a group with Japan and the US was a forward move. Boldness on foreign policy issues is noticeable against the background of mind-numbing paralysis of governance in New Delhi. How come? It seems the much-ridiculed pin-striped and silk-sari-ed mandarins of the external affairs ministry are filling the void and doing it well. They are running with the ball, confidently playing with the big boys while the politicians bicker and disrupt Parliament. With the White House similarly distracted with domestic issues and bigger foreign policy problems (ending the Iraq War and a migraine called Pakistan), the dark suits in the State Department are doing their best to put meat on the relationship with India.
The first meeting reportedly went "very, very well" because of the level of comfort the partners enjoy with each other. There were jokes and the familiarity of frequent contact. The focus was on three broad topics: maritime security including anti-piracy initiatives, regional issues related to East Asia and counter-terrorism.
The idea is to coordinate and come up with plans for joint action. The broad context included the South China Sea, where Beijing has disputes with many countries and where fear of disruption of trade flows is acute because of China’s belligerent claims. There is recognition that no one country can handle China alone, not even the US with its economy in a trough. But groups of countries acting together can prevent the prospect of complete Chinese dominance in the region.
This implies that India will have to pick up a bigger share of the burden and indications are that India is getting ready to do just that. Japan appears to be shedding its peacenik robe and seems eager to join hands with India. And the feeling is mutual. China must not be allowed to fill every available strategic space in Asia and beyond. Most Asian countries agree, but few can say it openly. Even fewer can act. Those who can are getting their act together.
Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based analyst and writer. Follow her on Twitter @seemasirohi
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